LOS ANGELES — Accusations of inmate abuse in the country’s largest jail system have piled up over the last several days and weeks, with tales of volunteers witnessing beatings of prisoners. And when news broke of a federal investigation into the conduct of several guards, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Lee Baca, reacted angrily, saying the inquiry overstepped its authority.
But this week, facing mounting political pressure, Sheriff Baca announced a number of new investigations and changes in the county jails, saying he would appoint a special task force to examine dozens of allegations that the American Civil Liberties Union included in a federal court filing last month.
Although he defended his leadership, Sheriff Baca said in an interview that he intends to focus on ways to improve communication between inmates and his deputies in the county facilities, particularly in Men’s Central jail, which has been the focus of most of the complaints.
“We need to be focusing on the issue of respect for the inmates; the escalation of violence all stems from that,” Sheriff Baca said on Monday. “The escalation of the emotion is what leads to violence, but we’re the ones that should be more sensible about it. When the day is done, we are the inmates’ caretakers.”
“We are going to look into this and we welcome anyone to look into it as well,” he added. “The widespread problem can’t be defined until we know what all the issues are.”
Sheriff Baca said he had appointed four top lieutenants to lead an investigation of more than 70 complaints filed by the A.C.L.U and would present the findings to the United States Attorney’s Office. He is also hosting a series of town hall meetings at the jail to seek input from inmates, who he said often battle with mental illness and depression.
But the efforts are doing little to quell Sheriff Baca’s harshest critics, including the A.C.L.U., which has called on him to resign. Steve Lopez, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, also called for Sheriff Baca’s resignation in a Web post on Friday. That same day, the newspaper had reported that a rookie deputy who had been at the top of his academy’s class quit after he was ordered to beat a mentally ill inmate.
“If Baca’s got any self-respect, he’s got to walk,” Mr. Lopez wrote.
Last week, after Sheriff Baca had initially resisted the idea of an outside investigation, two Los Angeles County supervisors, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky, called for a public investigation, saying that it would be the only way to restore public trust.
“This is probably the biggest challenge of his tenure and I think he knows it,” Mr. Yaroslavsky said. “The allegations are very troubling, if they are true, and there seems to be a lot of evidence that they are. It would be a blow to him personally because this violates everything he has stood for.”
The A.C.L.U. and dozens of other civil rights and defense lawyers signed a letter late last month asking for a widespread federal investigation, but the Department of Justice has not announced that any such investigation will occur. Several civil rights lawyers have also criticized the department for not making the investigations public, something Sheriff Baca said he would consider changing.
So far the calls for the resignation of the sheriff, who has won considerable support from liberal allies in the city, have been limited. Still, Margaret Winter, the associate director of the National Prison Project for the A.C.L.U., said Sheriff Baca’s calls for reform sounded hollow.
“The time has long passed when Baca could be the positive agent of change,” Ms. Winter said. “We’ve been bringing these problems to him for years, and it should have been overwhelmingly obvious to him. What he’s doing now is running for cover.”
When the A.C.L.U.’s monitor for the jail said she witnessed several deputies beating an inmate this year, a spokesman dismissed the complaint. And the sheriff has said he does not believe there are systemic problems in the jail.
On Monday, Sheriff Baca said his resistance to the federal investigation was solely because the F.B.I. smuggled a cellphone into the jail without giving the county any notice. But he denied that his announcement of changes marked any kind of about-face.
In many ways, Sheriff Baca’s renewed focus on the jails could force him to acknowledge more problems in the department, which is also facing a federal investigation of overt racial discrimination in the northern part of the county.
“I don’t think that he always gets the information he needs to get,” Mr. Yaroslavsky said. “Some people keep the bad news away from him, and I think he’s starting to realize that. He doesn’t succumb to defensiveness, but I think he needs to be a little more skeptical of some of his underlings.”
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"